Go light, lighter, and lighter still. That mantra is echoed in many industrial sectors, especially aerospace, a small profit-margin business where light weight can translate into significant savings in fuel costs.
Now, thanks to a new symbiotic manufacturing process, a super-light cast magnesium airplane seat frame may mean huge savings for airlines, and a considerable reduction of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Autodesk, Inc., a multinational software corporation headquartered in
San Rafael, California, U.S., has combined generative design software and 3D printing with traditional metal casting to create a ‘proof of concept’ magnesium seat frame that weighs just 1.69 pounds, some 56% lighter than a typical frame that weighs 3.69 pounds (magnesium is about one-third lighter than conventionally used aluminum). The prototype computer-optimized, lattice-like structure could theoretically save more than $100,000 over the lifetime of an A380 aircraft, for example, or $200 million over the 20-year lifetime of a fleet of 100 such aircraft. And it could prevent nearly 140,000 tons of carbon from going into the atmosphere.
Andrew Harris, Design Consultant with Autodesk’s Digital Manufacturing Group, conceived the seat as a viable example of his company’s technology. But how to manufacture it? Harris found his design to be unfeasible for 3D printing, because of the constraints of current commercial metal 3D printers--limited to a relatively small portfolio of materials; custom materials looked to be too costly.
But Andreas Bastian, another Autodesk researcher and specialist in 3D printing, independently conceived of an entirely new manufacturing process to combine the strengths of 3D printing with those of traditional metal casting, which involves a mold to form the desired object. Metal casting is used to make enormous, multi-ton metal parts for things like jet engines.
Mr. Bastian combined the two methods, using a non-metal 3D printer to print the mold, then cast objects in metal--like Mr. Harris’s generative airplane seat frame. It took a foundry that was experienced and comfortable working with magnesium to help see the partners’ protoype to fruition.
Mr. Bastian says it’s likely that it will remain cheaper and faster to 3D print with polymers or sand than to print with metal over the next 10 to 20 years, but his manufacturing method will allow generatively designed parts to be cast relatively cheaply.
“We’re currently not asking very much of the things we’re designing in terms of function,” Bastian says. “We’re generally asking the part to hold the load and that’s it. But what’s exciting is we can start to ask a whole lot more of the materials around us and make them perform in more ways than one.”
Mr. Bastian and Mr. Harris have conferred with several airlines and aircraft manufacturers to explore further the potential of their design/fabricating technology.
Autodesk, Inc. (“Make Anything”) makes software for the architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, media, and entertainment industries. The company website say, “Autodesk makes software for people who make things. If you’ve ever driven a high-performance car, admired a towering skyscraper, used a smartphone, or watched a great film, chances are you’ve experienced what millions of Autodesk customers are doing with our software.”
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